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Elon Musk: Tesla, SpaceX and the Quest for a Fantastic Future by Ashlee Vance

June 11, 2016


Elon Musk is the potential successor to Steve Jobs as the world’s most disruptive entrepreneur. If the 1990s and 2000s were ever changed by Apple’s disruption of computers, music and phones, the two decades that follow could see as much a disruption in energy, auto and space by Musk companies.

Musk, a South African transplant to the U.S., is a nerd at heart. As the CEO of SpaceX, he is also the lead designer. “I know my rocket inside out and backward,” he says. “I can tell you the heat treating temper of the skin material, where it changes, why we chose that material, the welding technique…down to the gnat’s ass.”

But his technical know-how is combined with audacious ambition and a vision of a future made better through technological innovation. I know a couple people who have worked with Musk. Both said the same thing, which seems to be corroborated in this book: amazing man, not the easiest guy to work for.

To say that Musk is driven is a wild understatement. This book includes more than one story of Musk pushing himself and his team to their physical limits trying to meet his goals. With Vance’s unprecedented access to Musk and the people around him, we see Musk, the good and the bad. Like Iron Man’s Tony Stark (with perhaps a slightly toned-down tabloid-ready social life), Musk defies easy labels. But he is without a doubt larger than life. And although he is interesting as a personality, what I enjoyed more about this book was his approach to problems and his core beliefs as he tries to change the world.

First, Musk is a risk-taker. A personal risk-taker. After co-founding Paypal and selling it for $1.5 billion, he put much of that wealth on the line for the ventures that followed: SolarCity, Tesla and SpaceX. Perhaps that is the first lesson to take from Musk’s story—you have to be willing to put everything on the line to achieve the impossible. There were certainly times when it looked like Musk was going to lose everything.

Secondly, Musk insists on re-thinking everything. For SpaceX it makes sense to rethink much of the technology—many parts of the modern rocket are still based on 1960s technology. But more fundamental aspects of space flight were rethought as well. Like not building single-use boosters that fall into the ocean or burn up, but instead creating a vehicle that returns fully intact and reusable.

With Tesla, rethinking everything seemed to make less sense. There were certainly doubters who thought it was a waste of money to start from scratch with a car—after all, plenty of great technologies exist in the modern automobile. But following the thinking of other automakers would lead down a path to an automobile that was a tweak, not a reinvention. Musk didn’t want a tweak.

Finally, Musk insists on setting absurdly lofty goals, on doing more with less, faster than ever before. Maybe because of the audaciousness of the project, the image that most readily comes to mind is of the SpaceX engineers donning SCUBA gear on the remote Omelek Island (one of the Marshall Islands in the Pacific) to retrieve rocket parts after a failed launch of the Falcon rocket. The same men who had designed the rocket were out scavenging the ocean floor to bring the parts back and start over. This kind of scrappiness would be unheard of in most modern companies, let alone within the bureaucracies of government organization like NASA. Which is why SpaceX can put things into space at a fraction of the cost of the competition.

How much Tesla and SpaceX will revolutionize their industries is yet to be seen. I would put my money on them both. But more interesting than the particulars of those companies is the mind behind them and how it works. I believe that twenty years from now, we’ll include Elon Musk’s name on the list with Edison, Ford and Jobs.

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